The masks were yellow in colour, kept in a transparent plastic bag. As we prepared for our Sandakphu trek, we combed for it in our rented apartment in Jatia. Six months ago, I moved into this apartment (after my marriage), not more than 500 metres from the home I grew up and lived for 30 years. For many days in the beginning, I would often locate my home from the terrace and bedroom balcony of our apartment. Each time I went to the terrace, I would spot the whitewashed walls in the hill towards the north, and a figure – usually moving, who I had often thought to be my father as he would mostly keep busy in cleaning the house and its premises. It wasn’t a surprise, when I was told by my mother that she too had located our building from the kitchen door and by standing under the mango tree near our rain water harvesting tank. It was a neighborhood of poor and lower middle class families. Not only did we share pithas, homegrown vegetables, and fruits like mangoes, bananas, jujube, coconut, and jackfruit, we also shared food that we had brought from our village homes and from our travels, from different events at a relative’s place like birthdays, funerals, ethnic events and rituals. On some days, we did not have to cook at all. Picking flowers like roses and gardenias; stems, leaves or roots of medicinal plants; cutting banana leaves and trees from were done in the neighborhood without the need to ask for permissions from the owner.
From the day of my marriage until now, every time I meet someone there would be stares directed at my forehead. Some would ask why I don’t put vermilion, and some would not. But their wondering eyes prepared me for a response. When asked how marriage has treated me, I would say, nothing has changed – only the house number and the name of the lane. If one looked for change, one would find many. The absence of privacy at home nettled me. However, it didn’t take long for me to decipher that an apartment with privacy guaranteed could be a source of displeasure. If only the space between the three front doors and the stairs had more utility other than to keep footwear! Front doors would always be closed or shut quickly, except in an apartment in the first floor where a group of musicians resided. At home, we kept the front and back doors open for fresh air to sweep in.
My partner and I are avid travelers, a few months without travel would make us cranky and disoriented. Planning for Sandakphu trek came in like a breath of fresh air. This was when news of Wuhan started to inundate social media. Unaware and ignorant of the virus, which seemed too distant to actually be a matter of worry at that point, my partner and I did not think much of it. We weren’t fully prepared even with the basic trekking equipments until the day of our onward journey, but we us were hopeful for things to work out. Brother-in-law found the bag; those bright yellow masks were covered in layers of dumped fabrics in an old doorless small steel wardrobe. Those were received during our last motorcycle trip to Mechuka, Arunachal Pradesh. We did not even know the right way to wear them. I kept on wearing them latched to my ears the whole time. It was only during our return journey, somewhere in Siliguri, that I noticed a person putting on the mask by taking the bands over his forehead to the back of his head.
Our trek guide shared the news of Sikkim sealing the borders from tourists. While we were descending from Sandakphu to Sepi, there were IEC materials all over the street walls. The West Bengal Police were seen disseminating information, creating awareness and discouraging, strictly, tourist vehicles from making stops. We quickly headed to a food joint before boarding the train. Just when I asked my partner where we had kept the sanitizer, the restaurant ‘boy’ warmly offered the sanitizer at the reception table. To see that there was awareness was comforting. The train was delayed by four hours; we both were weary. Our coach was relatively less crowded when we boarded the train. We were relieved to do without the blankets and sheets from the train as we had winter jackets with us. Wearing our face masks, we slept in our jackets. Guwahati Railway Station, the next morning, wasn’t usual. It was deserted. The premises looked as though sanitized only a few hours before. My face and legs were swollen from the trek. Mild fever, cold and sore throat had set in. I googled for symptoms of the virus and found terms like novel conoravirus, Covid-19 and SARS-CoV2. I repeatedly googled each of these terms, read articles and watched multiple videos. Since I did not have dry cough, I took it as a sign that this was not a coronavirus infection. I started to feel better with adequate rest, but weakness persisted. Exactly ten days since we returned from the trek, the health minister of Assam announced lockdown. The following day, came the national lockdown. During daytime, my partner and I went out for essentials. We were prepared for at least two weeks.
Our lockdown started with more time for family, friends, homemade food and some incomplete projects. I was otherwise unaffected by the rules of lockdown and the safety clauses of the pandemic since I was unemployed for more than a year now. Even before the pandemic, I would wash my hands very often almost like a ritual, a compulsive behaviour. Only this time, I began noticing and questioning others if they had washed their hands to the point of offending them. Some textings and conversations with friends unfolded certain issues which many of us anticipated. There was the news of the plight of daily wage earners and migrants, and government apathy. How long would one sit raising questions in social media? We started a crowd funding drive, calling it Community Resilience Drive – Support During Pandemic. A day after the lockdown was announced we created a WhatsApp group with 25 members, of which 10 members volunteered to raise money. It was decided that we could intervene in two ways – food relief and psychosocial support. The target groups were daily wage earners and border communities of Assam and slum dwellers in Guwahati. A number of other organisations too, pulled in resources to provide grocery and sanitation kits. A few worked towards creating awareness on the pandemic and hygiene practices that must be followed to fight the virus.
Specific information of people struggling to feed themselves with no work came, even from unknown persons. A few times we received calls from different construction workers, and a group of fabric dealers from Jammu & Kashmir. They were stranded in different parts of Brahmaputra and Barak valley. Opinions whether to send them help was contested. We were suggested to do a background check. The concern might be genuine but it would be hard to believe that the concern did not come with prejudice. The secretary of a student organisation in Jammu who informed us about the migrant workers, provided identity cards of the workers for verification. We also checked the facebook account of the fabric dealer who contacted us. With assumptions that the latter was capable of buying essentials, no follow up was done. Neither did they reach out to us again. The case of the construction workers was however, believed to be genuine. All the three different groups were camping near railway stations in the respective areas. Local residents, district administration and a few civil society organisations reached out to them, we learned.
With the help of Assam police, we distributed dry ration to a large pocket in a city slum of 295 households in Gandhi Basti. This was done in two phases. The first phase was conducted without much chaos. A few days later we went for the second phase of distribution to cover the remaining households. Needless to say, there was no physical distancing maintained and very few wore masks. Some men used handkerchief, while a few women used the tip of their sarees as cover. Children were hardly seen covering their nose and mouth. On that day, we were overwhelmed with requests for grocery kits from people who owned pucca houses. With limited kits and our accountability to the objective to reach the poorest of the poor and untouched pockets, we did ask ourselves if distributing kits only on the basis of the type of house one owns was justified. We only managed to do a questionable pilot survey within lockdown restrictions. The group operated only on grounds of moral obligation, which made a few things easier for us unlike the organisations who were doing relief work and were accountable on their utilization of funds. A friend who is the co-founder of an NGO based in Guwahati, shared the challenges they had faced. They received fund for ration but the expense of the vehicle for procurement and distribution was not covered by the funding organisations. She often complained of how it had made her exhausted and made her consider withdrawing. To our disappointment, posts in social media, especially the photographs, of the relief work were criticized. It raised doubts on the intent of the relief work that different individuals, groups and organisations were doing. Barring the doubts raised by a few known and unknown people the support work was going good.
Some of us checked on people we had been associated with at different times during our work in development sector, and on people in our neighbourhoods to know how they were coping since the lockdown. We received distressing news from two villages in Chirang – Koraibari 2 and Jiaguri. Koraibari 2, an unrecognized forest village of 31 households were inhabited by Adivasis. Some were surviving merely on wild potatoes and mushrooms. They were affected by conflicts in the region and have been displaced multiple times. Jiaguri village had mostly Bodo residents. They had been surviving on raw bananas. People from both the villages were daily wage workers and primarily depended on work in Bhutan. They work in alcohol factories, construction sites, in people’s lawns, and other daily wage work. We were prepared to support only 100 households, but the requirement was more than twice the number that we prepared for. By that time, we struggled to collect funds as we nearly exhausted all our networks. Two weeks later, we were able to collect enough to support 225 households. We compromised with the quality of rice by increasing quantity, after receiving suggestions from local people. We procured rice from a local vendor utilizing funds from our crowdfunding collection. Akshar Foundation supported with the other grocery items. The distributions took longer this time. With the involvement of the NGO mentioned, we were accountable unlike the first phase. We recorded the names of every beneficiary and photographed them for record and reporting. Their cooperation reminded us of the distributions in the city. We managed to complete the distribution in Gandhi Basti slum on the second day but had to call off our distribution in Noonmati seeing the crowd growing larger within seconds. People complained that there were some in the crowd who can afford rations and of more than one member from the same family standing in queue.
A while ago a friend from Delhi asked if we knowingly left some pockets unattended. He and his friends thought of supporting the needy with ration in the name of gifting their friend on her birthday. We shared the information we received of five homeless families in Pathabari village of Chirang. They recently came from Arunachal Pradesh after working and living there for many years as daily wage workers. They returned only to their memory of home. They had been living in the VCDC office. The friends collected the money and made the transfer. The birthday girl and her friends sent us videos with thank you notes. We too responded with a video expressing our gratitude. The following day, our friend from Chirang sent a message. It said, “Bengtol became containment zone after a person was found positive with coronavirus. He was roaming around. He was released after seven days quarantine in Bengtol Centre, perhaps asymptomatic.” We were prepared that the drive could be delayed because of heavy monsoon rains and flood. Since Pathabari is on the other side of the Aai river, the only way from Runikhata to Pathabari was by taking a boat from Bengtol ghat.
Regardless of the relief provided by the various groups/organisations, the poor continued to suffer. Migrants died from hunger and accidents on their way home. One of the most tragic news was of 16 migrant workers run over by train in Aurangabad, Maharashtra while they were sleeping on the railway tracks. With the news of Amphan, destroying lives and affecting millions within days, every other news of human brutality, deaths, and lynchings, deflated me further. Each time a sad news was received and people thought things couldn’t get worse, there came another bad news. The blowout in Baghjan oil well, deprived many of their homes. Thousands ended up in relief camps and many suffered loss of property and livestock. If one kept a record of all the recent events in the past few months, it could only reveal the failure of governments and a failed society. The pandemic only made it visible to those willing to see it.